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MoCA Asian Bistro in Woodbury has been drawing crowds since its opening two months ago. When I called two days ahead for a Friday or Saturday reservation, I was told that none were available, no matter how early or late. I settled for a Saturday night reservation 10 days in the future and was given a choice of 6 or 6:30 p.m.
Why the popularity? For one thing, MoCA — which stands for Modern Concept of Culinary Arts — is in the Woodbury Village Shopping Center, which, with its four other restaurants, is a dining destination in the area. MoCA, in the former home of Nisen Sushi, has lower prices and an even more impressive décor.
Nisen Sushi was attractive, but MoCA is stunning. Diners first see a gorgeous marble bar and an adjacent lounge area with a half-dozen small, round tables surrounded by dark brown leather chairs and banquettes. The dining room is pure eye candy, with yards of diaphanous burgundy-colored cloth draped from the ceiling and a white stone wall interrupted by niches covered with backlighted, decorative grates. Another wall holds five imposing brown-and-white photographs of vegetables with a large, U-shaped leather booth beneath each picture. Those booths are separated by tall bamboo dividers.
MoCA is part of a group, owned by Johnson Chen, that includes MoCA Asian Bistros in Hewlett and Forest Hills, Queens, and two more-casual restaurants, MoCA Express in Inwood and MoCA Cuisines in Lawrence.
On my first visit to the Woodbury restaurant, the service staff was a bit shaky, with runners unsure of where to deliver the dishes. On a second night we had a very attentive, competent waiter. Brace yourself for a high noise level.
MoCA’s pan-Asian menu encompasses dishes from Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia. We tried selections from both the sushi bar and the kitchen, and while each had its pluses and minuses, the sushi bar had the most hits and the fewest misses.
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Long Island Dining
From the list of kitchen appetizers, we gave the highest marks to the Korean-style, marinated baby short ribs. The tender, flavorful pieces of meat on the bone were served over field greens. Also winning were four delicate cooked sea bass rolls wrapped in bok choy and atop a sauce of ginger and scallion oil. We were disappointed, however, by the Malaysian-style beef kebabs, which were tough, and the pan-fried pork gyoza, which were appropriately paper-thin but not crispy. Mini-wonton soup got mixed reviews: The broth was tasty and the won tons were pleasingly thin, but the three-inch dumplings were far from mini.
Two hits on the sushi-bar appetizer roster were called Crunchy Crunchy Crunchy and Seared Three Ways. The first starred spicy tuna atop wasabi-seaweed crackers garnished with crisp flags of fried nori seaweed, eel sauce and wasabi mayonnaise. The other consisted of three separate plates containing delicious morsels of seared tuna with cilantro sauce, seared salmon with mango sauce and seared white tuna in a sweet chili sauce.
Adding to the sushi bar’s winning streak were two excellent rolls: the Out of Control Roll, with spicy tuna and spicy yellowtail inside and crunchy, marinated snow crab outside, and the Sweet Heart Roll, heart-shaped pieces wrapped in bright red tuna. Inside were spicy mixed fish, caviar, seaweed salad and avocado.
The best kitchen entrees were the crisp, light shrimp and vegetable tempura and the casserole of Bangkok basil beef, its tender meat combined with oyster mushrooms, onions and eggplant.
General Tso’s chicken, a good test for any restaurant, failed miserably. The pieces of meat had no crunch, and the overly sweet sauce was dominated by chunks of pineapple. Thai mango prawns, which were designated with a chili pepper on the menu, had no heat and were as sweet as dessert.
As for the desserts themselves, all are brought in from outside. The best of those we tried was an individual warm, moist pineapple upside-down cake. New York cheesecake was appropriately creamy; tiramisù was not.
MoCA Asian Bistro is a beauty that will delight the eyes. The food, however, is not as consistently successful.